Seek, Help, Defend, Plead | Proper 14

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

1 The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.

10 Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!

11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the LORD.

I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.

12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts?

13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me.

New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!

14 I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.

15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you.

Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.

Your hands are stained with blood.

16 Wash! Be clean!

Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good.

Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD.

Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.

If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.

19 If you agree and obey, you will eat the best food of the land.

20 But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.

The LORD has said this. (CEB)

Seek, Help, Defend, Plead

There is some irony in reading a text that describes how God hates our worship while we’re among worshipers in the middle of a worship service. Isaiah spoke these words from outside the sanctuary, but we read them from inside the sanctuary. It’s almost a little embarrassing. But maybe that’s an appropriate response.

To put it mildly, this is not an easy text. Whenever Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned, you know judgment is right around the corner. So, when we read, “Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!” we know it’s bad news, (Isaiah 1:10 CEB). This is not an easy text for me to expound in a sermon, and it’s not an easy text for you to hear.

Yet, “Hear” is exactly what Isaiah encourages us to do. It would be a shame if the accusatory tone and difficulty of this text were to cause us to turn our attention elsewhere so we don’t hear the Lord’s word.

First, I should say that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably not what you think. I know one part of our culture has turned Sodom into an anti-gay rallying cry, and they use demonizing words like Sodomite, but the true crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah—the real wickedness—were greed and injustice. The prophet Ezekiel, when writing to the people of Judah about their own wickedness and how they had outstripped Sodom in it, wrote: “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy,” (Ezekiel 16:49 CEB).

“She didn’t help the poor and needy.” That was the sin of Sodom, and that was the sin of both Israel and of Judah.

Israel, and Judah failed to make the connection between their worship inside the sanctuary and their life outside the sanctuary walls. If we examine ourselves honestly, how well do we make the connection, ourselves?

Our congregation is doing and has done some really good things to care for poor and needy people recently. We support Thrive in order to support and care for kids who need help with their education. We made hundreds upon hundreds of lunches to feed kids through the summer so they wouldn’t go hungry. We’ve prepared meals for needy people during the holidays so they could have something a little more special than their everyday fare. We have an amazing nursery school program to give kids a start on their education. We have a fair trade store on campus. I know some members of our congregation volunteer at the Mission here in town. We’ve raised and donated thousands of dollars for relief and recovery efforts after natural disasters. We do, and we have done, some good things to meet immediate needs. At the same time, we could probably do more.

If we were to examine our complicity in systemic practices that negatively affect the poor and needy, however, we might not do so well on our grade card. Do we buy certified fairly traded goods, or do we get whatever’s cheapest regardless of how the poor might have been swindled or exploited so we could have inexpensive goods?

Do we shop at companies that pay their employees a fair and livable wage, or do we go to Walmart because what we want is cheaper there? A 2014 study showed that, because Walmart doesn’t pay their employees a livable wage, Walmart employees cost taxpayers 6.2 billion dollars in public assistance each year. This is America’s biggest employer, and it’s owned by America’s richest family. One Walmart in Ohio was found to be receiving donations of food for its employees because their employees couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving meal.

There are other systemic issues, too, regarding healthcare for the poor, education for the poor, incarceration rates for the poor, burdensome immigration processes for refugees and asylum-seekers, mistreatment of undocumented immigrants, and the list would go on.

We’re in the first chapter of the first book of the Prophets, and the first order of business is a blistering assault on our worship as it relates to everything outside of the sanctuary walls. It turns out that the first and most furious critic of religion is God.

I want us to hear what God is saying through Isaiah. There is a disconnect when any people worship a God who states over and over and over how deeply God cares for the most vulnerable people in society when we, ourselves, are complicit or outright neglectful in showing care for those Vulnerable-Beloved-of-God. God declares that it’s not merely a disconnect, it actually turns our worship into an abomination. Our worship, itself, becomes false. Worship that is not concerned with justice and mercy for the vulnerable of our society is obscene and perverse.

Part of the disconnect might actually be worship, itself. When we come to this place to worship, what do we expect? What do we want? If we worship so we can get something out of it, or so we can feel good, or like some kind of catharsis has occurred now that the benediction has been offered, we might need to reevaluate. If, after worship, we feel like we’ve accomplished something, like we’ve met an obligation, or satisfied a commitment, we might need to reevaluate. Even if we discuss matters of justice and God’s love for everyone, if we feel a sense of closure at the end of worship, we may need to reevaluate.

We’re probably here in this sanctuary because we recognize that worship is essential for us. How else can we have a serious engagement with God that gives us life, that transforms our community, that changes the world? We need to give God our worship. We need to experience God’s transformative love through worship. We need the strength of God’s grace, which we receive in worship, so that we can go outside these walls and serve the world. We know that we need worship.

It might also be ironic that worship is what allowed us to hear this text.

So, the idea that God hates our worship… well… verses 10 through 14 are pretty tough to hear. They’re a withering indictment of our worship. The intent of our worship is many-fold, but its primary purpose is not self-serving. We don’t worship God so that we can feel good about ourselves. In worship, we bring to God all that we have and all that we are, and we offer the whole of it to God for God’s purposes alone.

The prayer after communion, which we pray every Sundaym is a plea to God to send us into the word in the strength of the Holy Spirit so that we can give ourselves to others. Do we really want to give ourselves for others? Do we really want to serve God and work for God’s dominion by living out and fighting for the values of God’s dominion? Do we really want to represent that?

As bad as those verse are, it actually gets worse. “When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood” (Isaiah 1:15 CEB). When there is a disconnect between what happens inside the sanctuary and what happens outside the sanctuary, God will not even listen to our pleas. We shouldn’t expect our confessions and prayers in the sanctuary to cover our willful neglect of justice. Repentance actually requires us to change.

On Sunday mornings, we worship a poor, wandering, homeless, brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, Jewish, asylum-seeking refugee named Jesus, who was birthed by an unwed mother. How, then, can we think or speak negatively about any person in any of those categories Monday through Saturday? How can we speak about denying basic necessities, God-given human dignity and value, or a chance at a better life to any person in any of these categories?

[[Or, do we even wait beyond Sunday afternoon?]]

“Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow. Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool” (Isaiah 1:16-18 CEB).

True worship—authentic worship—is how we live our lives before God. What we do in this or any other sanctuary is only a start to the worship we do on the outside. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.

I really don’t have a way to give any of you, or even myself, closure at the end of this sermon. There will be differences in how this looks for each of us. So, maybe a loose end is what we need. In fact, this sermon is a little shorter than what I usually preach. Maybe that’s not a bad thing either.

This part of God’s word might not be pleasing to our ears, our heart, or any of our sensibilities, but this is a word we need to keep chewing on. This is a word we need to hear in the sanctuary, and a word we need to consider while we’re outside of it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Return | Proper 13

Hosea 11:1-11

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

2 The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols.

3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.

4 I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.

5 They will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they have refused to return to me.

6 The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes.

7 My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up.

8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

9 I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment.

10 They will walk after the LORD, who roars like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.

11 They will come trembling like a bird, and like a dove from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD. (CEB)

Return

In some of the most deeply emotional poetry in all of Biblical prophetic literature, Hosea tells one of the oldest stories in human history. The story gets told in many different ways throughout the pages of the Bible, beginning in Genesis and continuing through Revelation.

As a storyteller, myself, I’ve heard experts in the field of fiction writing, at almost every writing conference I’ve attended, drill into our collective heads the phrase, Show, don’t tell. Show us what happens in the scene, don’t tell us. Don’t tell the reader what happened by saying, Christopher picked up his pen and notebook and began to write a story about another world. It might be exactly what happened, but it’s boring.

Instead, put the reader in the scene by showing what happened. Say, The saga of life on an alien world poured from Christopher’s mind as his black pen scrawled slanted letters, hurried and barely legible even to himself, across the pages of his notebook. Showing is much harder work than telling, but the result is worth it. Showing is painting a portrait with words. Showing allows the reader to see in their mind’s eye, feel in their heart, and perceive in their soul what’s unfolding on the page they’re reading.

This story is about God, who loves us completely. God created us. God provides for us and delivers us when we’re in trouble. But the more God pursues us, the more we turn away. This is a story about our shame. Yet, as much as this story is about our shame, it’s even more a story of God’s grace. Hosea proves himself a master storyteller who doesn’t tell us so much as he shows us. He puts us in the scenes of human existence from God’s perspective and allows us to feel the depth of God’s pain as the tragic story of divine love and human rejection unfolds.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:1 CEB).

Yet, it was God who taught Ephraim to walk. Hosea shows us a scene in which a mother and father hold out their arms to a child who can now stand and encourages them, “Come on. You can do it. Come to me.” The child grins and takes a step before crashing to the floor, wailing. That mother or father quickly scoops their child up in their arms and kisses the small hurts until their child is comforted and calm. The child won’t remember this moment: neither their fall nor their parent’s healing touch. But the mother and father will remember.

How many times did a scene like that unfold until the child could walk? How many of the child’s unremembered wounds would God kiss away?

The next scene shows a child who can now walk, and a mother and father who lead the child carefully, gripping the child’s chubby fingers as she or he toddles unsteadily at their parent’s sides. The parents walk at the child’s pace because that’s all the child can manage. Getting anywhere would be quicker if Mom or Dad simply picked the child up, but the child wants to walk, and the mother and father savor how their little one is growing and learning. Soon, their child will walk on their own, but mothers and fathers secretly hope their child will still want to hold their hand when their child is older; to maintain those cords of human kindness and bands of love throughout their lives.

Another scene shows us those tender moments when a mother and father pick up their child and hold them close against their cheek. Quiet snuggles. Soft kisses. Maybe even blowing gentle raspberries on the child’s chunky tummy rolls to get them giggling. It’s love that this scene portrays. Amazing, perfect, love.

The next scene shows a mother or father feeding their child, perhaps making a game of it with zooming noises as they move the spoon around and around until sticking it in their child’s mouth and laughing. Maybe it’s also the memory of a mother breastfeeding their child close-held to her body, or (for us more modern fathers) maybe it’s a father feeding their child with a bottle while the child is cradled in his arms.

These are scenes of deep intimacy that only an involved parent knows. These are scenes of parents who love their child in the most profound ways; parents who would do anything to protect and care for their beautiful child. This child is adored, and these parents have pledged everything for the child in their care. Because this child is theirs. Their love for their child flows in ways they never imagined possible, because the parents made this child. They’re a family.

Hosea shows us story after story in a child’s life that the child can’t remember when grown. But the mother and father remember. God is that mother and father. We are that child.

The next scenes are moments that we, as that child now grown, might want to not see again. Scenes of when we ran when God called. Scenes of the tantrums we threw, the hateful things we shouted in the heat of the moment. Scenes of the promises we broke. Scenes of the wreckage we made of our life and our relationships. Scenes of our violence, our hatred, our self-loathing, our often self-made despair.

We are children who were loved from the start. We’re also children who turned away from God. God, our loving mother and father, ran after us calling our name as we sped away but, in our rejection of the one who loves us more completely than we can possibly know, we kept going. We sought our own path. We are the children who broke God’s heart.

Verses five through seven show a God whose heart continues to break because God’s child has continued to rebel. Hosea describes how God sees the consequences the child will bear because of that rebellion. The child turned to other nations when God was right there in their midst. And those consequences are dire. “The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up” (Hosea 11:6-7 CEB).

We might wonder at the harshness of these words, that the God who loves so profoundly won’t raise the people up when they call. But, in reality, there comes a time in our rebellion when it’s too late. This is like finally realizing we should have listened to Mom and Dad only after the judge has slammed the gavel post-sentencing. We can call out all we want as the bailiff takes us away but, at that point, Mom and Dad are helpless and heartbroken. And we’re stuck paying for the consequences of our actions. In Hosea’s story, that’s exactly what God sees happening to Israel.

And God’s heart is shattered. God is in agony. God is the one who cries out now, saying, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment” (Hosea 11:8-9 CEB).

If you don’t recognize the two cities mentioned here, Admah and Zeboiim were two cities destroyed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah (c.f. Deuteronomy 29:23). How can God, as a loving parent, can give up God’s own child? The very idea causes God’s heart to recoil. God can’t give Ephraim up. Instead, God’s compassion grows warm and tender.

Yes, the portrait Hosea paints is one that shows God as angry. Every parent knows that anger is a part of being a loving parent.

God, in this moment, is deeply wounded by Israel’s rejection. God is ready to give Ephraim a spanking, but God pulls back and chooses not to come in wrath. That, too, is love.

One of the stories I wrote, The Sign of Psyche, is about young woman named Eupeithis who offends Eros, the god of love. Eros curses her to fall in love with the first man she sees, so the goddess, Psyche, protects Eupeithis with a blindfold. Eupeithis runs for freedom with a hunter she befriends, but Eros pursues her, and his pursuit—for a long time—looks to Eupeithis like hatred. But, eventually, Eupeithis changes her mind about Eros’s anger. Here’s an abridged excerpt of that moment of realization:

—–

“Why did Eros come to me?” I ask. “He was angry, I know, but what was the reason for his anger? Was he truly motivated by hatred and revenge, as I have most often thought, or was he motivated by what he, himself, is?”

“You mean love?” Orthios asks.

“Yes, exactly! Did Eros truly hate me, or was his anger a form of himself?”

“I’ve never thought of anger as a form of love,” Orthios says.

“What is anger but love at its most sorrowful moment?” I ask. “When our hearts are broken, what’s our response?”

“Ah. I see.” Orthios squeezes my hand. “Anger.”

“Yet, the hope of anger—love when it’s injured—is reconciliation. How can a child know the difference between anger borne of love and anger borne of hatred? Often, the child sees a parent’s anger as hatred because their understanding of love is too limited for them to see the true reason: that their parent loves them, wishes the best for them, and desires to teach them so they can grow out of childhood.” I sigh heavily.

Orthios stays silent.

I turn my face toward him. “If Eros had not come to me in his hot wrath, what would have become of me? I might even now be dead, having suffered some horrible end. I was so foolish, Orthios. As it is, his anger—and punishment—brought me to you.”

I touch my blindfold. “In one sense of the matter, Eros’s anger became my greatest protection. If his nature is love, then how can Eros hate me? Is hatred not counter to his very being? I’ve begun to think his anger came upon me as a shield, and that Love, himself, has given me you.”

—–

We shouldn’t be surprised when we read in Scripture that God gets angry. When someone loves as deeply as God loves, anger will happen when that love is wounded. But love pursues the beloved even through anger. That’s what God does for us. That’s why God came to us and continues to come to us every day.

While the consequences of our rejection and betrayal of God would inevitably lead to our own destruction, God’s compassion for us will not allow us to be destroyed, “for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst” (Hosea 11:9 CEB). So, God will call again. God will roar like a lion, and this time God’s children will hear and obey. This time, surely, they’ll come home.

And someday, so might we. God’s love will not let us go.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Father | Proper 12

Luke 11:1-13

1 Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 Jesus told them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name. Bring in your kingdom.

3 Give us the bread we need for today. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us. And don’t lead us into temptation.'”

5 He also said to them, “Imagine that one of you has a friend and you go to that friend in the middle of the night. Imagine saying, ‘Friend, loan me three loaves of bread 6 because a friend of mine on a journey has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 Imagine further that he answers from within the house, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything.’ 8 I assure you, even if he wouldn’t get up and help because of his friendship, he will get up and give his friend whatever he needs because of his friend’s brashness. 9 And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.

11 “Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? 12 If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion? 13 If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (CEB)

Father

Prayer is something that we learn. We all have a prayer history. My earliest memories of prayer are of my mother helping me recite the nighttime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take. God bless Mommy, Daddy, Eric, Stephanie, my grandparents, all my aunts and all my uncles, all my cousins and all my friends. Amen.”

We also had our mealtime prayers. If we were at home or with our Methodist Romain family, we’d pray: “I fold my hands, I bow my head, to thank you God, for this good food. Amen.” Or, if we were with our Catholic Millay family, we’d pray: “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.”

Those lessons stuck with me. I prayed every night, and I prayed before every meal; even at school. In college, I was part of a prayer group that met on Fridays at 5:00 p.m. Later, I discovered other ways of praying. Lexio Divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breath Prayer, to name a few. Did you know there are short orders for daily prayer and praise on pages 876 and 878 in our United Methodist Hymnals? Methodists have a tradition of prayer, too, which is linked to the ancient traditions of the church.

We all have our prayer histories, but the Lord’s Prayer goes back to the very foundation of Christian prayer. The text from Luke begins by telling us that Jesus was praying. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is always praying. He constantly withdrew to deserted places or to mountains to pray. He spent nights in prayer. He prayed before choosing the apostles. He prayed before going to Jerusalem. He prayed before his Transfiguration. He prayed before he fed the 5,000. He prayed the night before he was killed. He prayed while hanging on the cross in tortured agony. He prayed with his disciples after his resurrection.

So, when his disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray as John had taught his disciples, it’s easy to see how their request to learn wasn’t some theoretical, disconnected inquiry, but it came from actually watching Jesus pray all the time.

When I was a student at The University of Findlay, I remember attending an event put on by Campus Ministry. One of the speakers told us about the first time she visited Calcutta, India, to volunteer with Mother Teresa. She noticed how, throughout the day, the nuns kept stopping their work to pray. So, she asked Mother Teresa why they did that. In her practical mind, she imagined the nuns could get a lot more work done if they didn’t stop to pray all the time. And Mother Teresa responded by saying, “How could we get anything done if we did not stop to pray? How could we care for the sick, diseased, and dying without prayer?”

So, the pattern Jesus gives us is prayer all the time. The disciples saw Jesus pray that way, and they wanted to learn how to pray like Jesus. First, the prayer in Luke’s Gospel is shorter than Matthew’s version. In either gospel, the prayer is short, which fits with Jesus admonition that we not “pour out a flood of empty words” (Matthew 6:7 CEB). Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is only five sentences long.

Our address to God is Father. But, fathers in any age and culture parent quite differently. Some of us are or were fortunate to have wonderful fathers who are or were nurturing and loving. Others among us are not (or were not) so fortunate and had fathers who really could have been better. For these persons, the address to God as Father does not provide happy or pleasant thoughts. So, the address to God as Father can’t be detached from the rest of the text. It’s the rest of the text which describes God as nurturing by giving us the Holy Spirit.

The first two sentences of the prayer are confessional. God, our Father and Mother, has indeed shown God’s name to be holy, and God upholds the holiness of God’s name. In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the kingdom of God has been brought near. At the same time, we yearn for the full realization of God’s kingdom: that all people would honor God, and that God’s reign would be completely realized. We hope for God’s dominion because it’s the only way justice can truly prevail for everyone.

The next three sentences of the prayer address three essential needs that we all have. The word that we usually translate as daily is somewhat problematic because it doesn’t appear in any Greek literature before the Gospels. So, it’s difficult to know exactly what it means. It could mean daily, tomorrow’s, or necessary.

Maybe it’s intentionally ambiguous because it’s suggesting all three. On one hand, we are praying for God’s dominion to come in its fullness, so the word could suggest that we hope for tomorrow’s bread: the bread of God’s dominion, and our hope to participate in the messianic wedding banquet. Yet, on the other hand, it’s also an acknowledgement that God provides our daily sustenance. God gives us what we need—our necessities—to live each day.

The next need which Jesus mentions is forgiveness. We ask God to forgive us of our sins. But, God’s forgiveness of our sins serves as a reminder that we also need to forgive those indebted to us. Not only those who sin or trespass against us, but those who are indebted to us. Our request for God’s forgiveness is in a Greek tense (aorist imperative) that expects that forgiveness from God to be definitive. But the tense for our forgiveness of others (present) suggests that our forgiving is a never-ending process. Forgiving others is something we must do all the time. Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that we’re trying to forgive others for what they’ve done. Forgiveness isn’t easy for us, and the prayer subtly acknowledges that.

The final petition is about preservation. The “don’t lead us into temptation” (CEB) is misleading because God doesn’t lead us by the hand to temptation’s door. The NRSV provides a better translation by rendering it: “do not bring us to the time of trial.” In any case, it’s not about temptation as we normally think of it, which is an enticement to do evil. What we’re really asking for is protection and preservation from circumstances that test or imperil our faith.

We’ve all experienced situations where our faith has been deeply tested. For some of us, it was the death of a family member. For others, it was an unwanted transition. For others, it was the loss of a job and the security that disappeared with it. For some Christians around the world and throughout history, it’s been persecution, violence, or warfare among nations. Those moments, those times of trial, are troubling and full of stress. They can test our faith in God and make us wonder if God really cares about anything or anyone.

That’s probably why Jesus continues his lesson on prayer with the story of the friend at midnight. Jesus means to describe an unlikely scenario by asking, essentially, Could you imagine something like this happening? And the question—as asked in Greek—expects a negative answer. No one of Jesus day would have expected a friend to say, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything” (Luke 11:7 CEB). An answer like that would violate the conventions of hospitality and bring shame on the one who said it.

So, what Jesus presents is an absurd scenario in which even the important social and religious obligations of friendship and hospitality can’t compel a friend to get out of bed and respond to the need. But, even if a friend won’t do that, the friend will respond to the persistent pounding on the door. God, unlike the friend, is an eager giver. But, we still need to ask ourselves what God gives.

Jesus tells us that we should ask, and it will be given; search, and we will find; knock and the door will be opened. Yet, I think what God gives us is what we actually need, not necessarily what we want or desire. God gives us what is necessary and beneficial, like sustenance, forgiveness, and preservation. More than that, the direction we receive from Jesus in this prayer tells us that the establishment of God’s reign should be the primary focus of our prayers. Like a good and attentive parent, God gives us what we need. Most of us aren’t cruel enough to give our children snakes or scorpions when they’re hungry. (I mean, maybe you’re into those things as pets, but as a meal, I have my doubts).

One of my seminary professors, Geoffrey Wainwright, liked to use the terms Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: what we pray is what we believe. What we pray—especially the prayers of the church, like the Lord’s Prayer—both reveals and influences what we believe about the one to whom we pray. But we can also swap those phrases around. What we believe can improperly influence what we pray. If we think of God as a divine vending machine who dispenses whatever we ask for, then we’re going to be disappointed. That’s not what God is, and that’s not what the promise that God will answer our prayers is about.

Christians should not pray for whatever we want and expect to get it. Christians should pray for God to bring in the fullness of God’s reign and realm. That’s what it’s all about. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he stated what he wanted, but he also prayed for God’s will, not his own.

God is committed to accomplishing the establishment of God’s dominion. Those who pray as Jesus taught should expect that God intends to use us as a means toward that goal. Remember what Jesus said: “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13 CEB). It’s the Holy Spirit who helps us become instruments of and participants in God’s reign. In that sense, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate answer to our prayers.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

My Neighbor | Proper 10

Luke 10:25-37

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (CEB)

My Neighbor

When a parable becomes a cliché it’s easy to gloss over the meaning because we think we already know it. We tend to take it out of its historical context and turn it into a morality lesson. Most of us know stories of how a “Good Samaritan” came to our or another person’s aid. If Jesus only meant that we should help people when they’re in trouble, I doubt he would have wasted words by telling a parable, especially in the way he told it. It’s supposed to shock us, not make us feel good about ourselves. But, familiarity breeds contempt, so we tend to reduce this parable so that it points to us as the hero of the story every time we do a random nice thing.

At the heart of this parable is the relationship between the law and the gospel. For some of us, and for the majority of Jesus’ contemporaries, the law is the gospel. When we think this way—that the law is the gospel—we view our personal obedience to the law as our behavioral proof of faith in God. We can tick the check boxes on the law’s list of demands: I did this one, I did this one, thank goodness I didn’t do this one, check, check, check. With our list of boxes checked, we can declare ourselves righteous.

But, when we understand the law as gospel, we end up making our personal understanding of the law equal to God’s Divine revelation humanity in order to justify ourselves. The law effectively becomes the means by which we arrive at God’s ends.

For Jesus, the gospel is law, which is different from the law as gospel. We’ll get into this more in a bit, but first, let’s look at the scene Luke gives us. We’re told that a scribe or legal expert stood up to test Jesus. Now, when we read this, we usually read antagonism into the scribe’s action. But this was people often did when they got together. They would pose questions to each other to see how the person being questioned would answer. And it wasn’t necessarily antagonistic. Sometimes, it was entertaining.

Another point to note is that, as this scene unfolds, Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem. His journey there begins this way: “As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?’ But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, and they went on to another village” (Luke 9:51-56 CEB). A scribe asks Jesus what he must do to have life while Jesus is on his way to death.

That little piece of Luke 9 also highlights the strained relations between Jews and Samaritans. The disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume a Samaritan village that didn’t welcome Jesus. Clearly, the disciples still didn’t get this whole gospel thing Jesus was teaching. So, keep that in mind as we get to the parable itself.

Instead of answering when the legal expert asks his question, Jesus asks him how he would interpret what the law says. So, the legal expert responded with two texts of the Hebrew Scriptures that were widely seen in ancient Judaism as the hooks on which the whole law hung. One part, Deuteronomy 6:5, focused on devotion to God with one’s whole being. The other part, Leviticus 19:18, focused on the love of one’s neighbor. The two go hand in hand. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus continually connects devotion to God with actions representative of God’s love and mercy for humankind.

It’s a good answer. It’s the right answer. It’s what the law requires: love God and love your neighbors. And Jesus says as much.

But the legal expert couldn’t leave well enough alone. He needed to justify the way he had heretofore applied his personal understanding of the law in his life. He wanted to prove that the way he lived out his interpretation of the law’s demands was, indeed, righteousness. So, he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29b CEB).

Jesus sets the parable up by saying, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death” (Luke 10:30 CEB). The first two people to encounter the man on the roadside passed him by. Now, through the years, I’ve heard people try to give reasons for why the priest and the Levite—the clergy of Judaism—crossed over to the other side. The prevailing theory is that the priest and Levite would have been concerned with maintaining their ritual purity and encountering a dead body would have defiled them.

But, the hole in that theory is that the priest and Levite were both going “down” the same road. Anyone going “down” that road would have been traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. If you were going the other way, you’d be going “up” the road. The elevation of Jerusalem’s old city is 2500 feet above sea level. The elevation of Jericho is about 846 feet below sea level. So, you were either going up to Jerusalem or down to Jericho. Or, as Jesus put it, “down from Jerusalem.” If the priest and the Levite were on their way to Jericho, then there wouldn’t be much concern for maintaining ritual purity because they weren’t heading up to the temple.

The priest and the Levite are not allegorical representations of the failure of the law or what was wrong with Judaism. They only represent two people who didn’t demonstrate mercy. We don’t know why they didn’t. Their inner moral reasoning isn’t provided, and neither is the Samaritan’s, for that matter. All we know is that two people who presumably share the religious and cultural identity of the man who was beaten and left for dead did not express concern. Whatever their reasons for passing by, nothing can excuse their refusal to show mercy. In fact, the presence of these two characters in the story acting as they did—refusing to show mercy—would have shocked those who listened to Jesus words.

Yet, it’s not an indictment against Israel, Judaism, the clergy, or any such nonsense. Two people who were expected to show mercy didn’t. Their crossing to the other side of the road would have been heard by Jesus’ listeners as shocking. I know we like to see ourselves as the Samaritan in the story, but if we’re honest in our own self-reflection, we probably have more in common with the priest and the Levite than we’d like to admit. Other people’s problems are always inconvenient.

As for the Samaritan, I’m sure the man who got beaten up was just as much of an inconvenience for him as for the priest and the Levite. Certainly, the Samaritan’s introduction into the story—and especially his acts of mercy—jolted the audience. His disciples were probably scratching their heads. After all, he just passed through a Samaritan village full of people who refused to welcome him, who refused to extend the least bit of hospitality, let alone mercy.

The Samaritan is not like the presumably Jewish man who fell victim to the robbers. Yet, it’s the Samaritan who approached the man. It’s the Samaritan who bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. It’s the Samaritan who put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn. It’s the Samaritan who arranged for the wounded man’s continued care after he left. It’s the Samaritan who promised to return and pay for the cost of the man’s care if anything else were owed. It’s the Samaritan who treats the man not as an enemy but as one dear to him, which is shown by the spectrum of care he provides to the injured man. The Samaritan’s demonstration of mercy shows us how far love ought to go. Authentic love doesn’t discriminate. Authentic love creates neighborly relationships because, by love’s very nature, it meets the needs of others.

In this parable, though, the Samaritan doesn’t necessarily represent us. We don’t get to read ourselves into the story as the triumphal hero who did what was right. Rather, we should read ourselves into the story as the one who was beaten up and left for dead. The Samaritan, in fact, represents the person or group of people whom we would not want to help us. Maybe, we would rather die than have this person help us.

Who might that be for you? Think about it. Might it be a Muslim? A refugee from Central America? A drug addict? A homeless person who hasn’t bathed in three weeks? Who would that be for you? Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote the book, The Misunderstood Jew said that, as a Jewish woman, for her the Samaritan is a member of Hamas who showed mercy. In a lecture to a group of people who had witnessed September 11 first-hand, she suggested the the Samaritan was a member of Al Qaeda who showed mercy.

The point of Jesus’ parable is to remind us in our self-righteous certainty of our sincerely-held definitions of good people and bad people that mercy can come from unexpected places; that neighbors can be found in unexpected places. The legal expert wanted to narrow the scope of who he might have to count as his neighbor, but Jesus blew the definition so wide open that we don’t get to exclude anyone.

There’s probably a bit of the legal expert in all of us. Some of us find the law-as-gospel mindset comforting. When the law is gospel, we know where we’re going. We seek refuge in rules. We glorify boundaries. We enumerate norms, and we codify discipleship. We ask about definitions and try to set limits. We want to know, precisely, who I must love as myself.

When the law is gospel, I am the actor, and my actions need to be justified by my personal understanding of the law and obedience to the law as humanly defined. To ask questions that seek answers that limit or define is to view the law as gospel. It’s an attempt at maintaining control over the wildly uncontrollable love and mercy of God. It’s to continue the presumption that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is primarily knowing the difference between good and evil instead of knowing only God and God’s mercy and showing God’s mercy to our neighbors.

You see, it’s not necessarily the law that fails to meet the standards of the gospel but, rather, it’s our human failure at interpreting it. If the legal expert had read a little farther, he would have found the place that says, “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 CEB).

Neighbors are people we don’t know. Neighbors are even the people we hate. Neighbors are people we fear. Who is my neighbor?

When the legal expert realized that he was the one being tested, not Jesus, he managed to say that the one who showed mercy was a neighbor to the man left for dead. It, too, is a good answer. It’s the right answer. Because, it’s not a person’s similarities to us that make them our neighbor. Those who show mercy are neighbors. And those who show mercy are the ones who fulfil both the law and the gospel. Jesus tells us to go and demonstrate mercy to the world. Are we willing to let love move so deeply in us that we dare to demonstrate mercy to people we hate and, therefore, become neighbors to those we’d rather die than love—or allow to love us?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Reap and Sow | Proper 9

Galatians 6:1-16

1 Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Watch out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted too. 2 Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are important when they aren’t, they’re fooling themselves. 4 Each person should test their own work and be happy with doing a good job and not compare themselves with others. 5 Each person will have to carry their own load.

6 Those who are taught the word should share all good things with their teacher. 7 Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. 8 Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. 9 Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. 10 So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.

11 Look at the large letters I’m making with my own handwriting! 12 Whoever wants to look good by human standards will try to get you to be circumcised, but only so they won’t be harassed for the cross of Christ. 13 Those who are circumcised don’t observe the Law themselves, but they want you to be circumcised, so they can boast about your physical body.

14 But as for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through him, and I have been crucified to the world. 15 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation. 16 May peace and mercy be on whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel. (CEB)

Sow and Reap

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian Freedom. It was written to an entire region of the Roman empire, Galatia, which is the central part of modern Turkey. We don’t know much about the region or even of individual churches in Galatia, but it was populated by Celtic peoples known as Gauls. Paul passed through parts of Galatia on his second and third missionary journeys. On the third journey, he “traveled from place to place in the region of Galatia and the district of Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23 CEB).

When it comes to books, my Aunt Jan is one of those people whose habit is to always read the last pages of the book first. I don’t know why, but I guess she wants to know the end so she can decide whether she wants to spend the time it’ll take to get there from the beginning.

Paul’s whole letter includes all the categoric sections of typical Greco-Roman literary style. So, what we have in chapter six includes some exhortation about expected behavior (1-10) and a summary of the letter’s main points (11-16). So, if you’re one of those people who, like my Aunt Jan, always read the last pages first, you’re in luck. We haven’t read the entire letter to the Galatians in our worship service today, but the last page tells us all the main points of the letter.

We know that this stuff was so important to Paul that he didn’t dictate the letter through a scribe, but he wrote it by his own hand, in his own style. He even calls attention to his large letters so the Galatians know it’s really Paul writing a personal letter to them.

So, here are Paul’s main points. We know that Paul has opponents. Jewish Christians—possibly from Jerusalem—have followed in Paul’s footsteps and called the Gentile believers in Galatia to turn to a gospel that was different from the gospel Paul preached to them (c.f. 1:6). These Judaizers impressed upon the Gentile believers that they had to be circumcised—they had to become Jews—before they could really be saved because the promises of God were only for the Jews. The Gentiles had to become like them.

They not only tried to change the gospel of Christ into something within the confines of rigid Jewish law, but they attacked Paul’s character and undermined Paul’s apostolic authority. According to them, Paul was a charlatan who presented his version of the gospel message as a commercial enterprise for his own economic gain. They argued that Paul wasn’t preaching a message that was in accordance with the Spirit of Christ.

The Judaizers were certainly sincere. They certainly were concerned for the Gentile believers in Jesus and wanted to “save” them from what they thought was an abomination. Paul’s gospel message of freedom from the law—extrication from the framework of religious rules—was, to them, horrendous and dangerous. The Judaizers probably questioned: How can people be saved when they don’t follow the right rules? How could the freedom Paul preaches, which allows believers to ignore the very laws God provided, originate from God?

Yes, the Judaizers were certainly sincere. But one’s sincerity does not make one correct. The Judaizers are proof that sincere belief can be misguided belief. Sincerity and correctness are not the same thing. So, early in the letter, Paul defends his ministry by telling his story: how he had advanced in Judaism beyond even these Judaizers because of how militant he was for Jewish religious traditions. But God set Paul free by revealing Jesus to him and calling Paul to preach to the Gentiles. Paul’s apostolic authority came directly from Jesus.

Some of this should sound familiar to us because there are those in the church who still engage in legalism and rigidity instead of freedom. We face the Galatian dilemma every day. We want to define who can sit at the table of grace. We want to test others to make sure they believe just like us, act just like us, think just like us. It’s so tempting to turn our personal experience of truth into the singular experience of God’s truth. A.J. Conyers wrote, “All religion, and every practice of religion, and in fact all of human life is in danger of being marshaled into the service of the human ego” (in Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol.3, pg. 211).

What Paul was trying to impress upon the Galatians—and upon us—is that the gospel of Jesus Christ produces a church that incorporates unity with remarkable diversity, and his ministry—the gospel he preached to the Galatians and every other people he encountered—stands in opposition to anyone who would categorize other believers and judge that they are either in or out because of some distinguishing characteristic.

Paul made it clear in chapter five that “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter” (Galatians 5:6 CEB). That statement would have been a challenge to the very Jewish religious tradition in which Paul was steeped before he encountered Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road. It was certainly a challenge for some Jewish Christians to accept that faith works through love, not through the law or cutting of flesh.

It was a radical idea then, and it’s still a radical idea today, especially for those Christians who would insist that other “potential” believers must accept the same parts of the law to which they subscribe, and Christians who would question the validity of the faith of those believers who don’t subscribe to the law as they do. We do tend to pick and choose the parts of the law we think are vital even as Paul tells us that the law is no longer our custodian (c.f. Galatians 3:25).

Paul’s counterargument to the Judaizers is that their motives are not for the glory of the cross of Christ Jesus, but for their own glory. They want to be able to boast about the Galatians’ flesh by saying, Look! Now God can save you because I’ve made you just like me! Paul’s opponents sincerely believed that they were the standard of the standardized test. Yet, Paul argues, the Judaizers themselves were unable to keep the very law to which they were insisting the young Galatian believers submit.

Paul hits his point again when he writes: “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation” (Galatians 6:15 CEB). A new creation is every believer who faith and life are known by the fruit of the Spirit. And, I want us to note that Paul does not say the fruits of the Spirit are… as if there are many fruits. We don’t get to pick through the basket of spiritual fruit and choose only what we want. No. Paul says, “The fruit [singular!] of the Spirit is [IS, not are] love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 CEB). There is one fruit of the Spirit, and that fruit is a new creation—a new life—that exhibits all of these attributes.

We can take Paul’s statement, “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything,” and fill in our own words. Being white or black. Being European brown or Asian brown or Hispanic brown. Being a citizen or a refugee. Being straight or gay. Being evangelical or mainline. Being conservative or liberal. Being male or female. Being rich or poor. Paul had his own list: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 CEB).

What really matter, says Paul, is how we serve one another through love. If we can’t to that, then we’re the ones with the salvation problem. The warning that we reap what we sow is tied to judgment. The measure we give is the measure we get. The judgment we give is the judgment we receive. We can’t deny that distinctions exist, but we don’t need to make our distinctions matter. Distinctions should not lead to separation.

Paul offers a blessing for those who follow the gospel he preaches. It’s a gospel where believers are no longer bound by past definitions of faith and faithfulness because something new has been brought to our attention through the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul insists on viewing religion from the inside out, not the outside in. It’s about our faith, not our distinguishing characteristics. It’s about how our faith is exhibited in the fruit of the Spirit, not how we follow certain rules.

One of the more difficult parts for us to accept is where Paul writes that we should “work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:10 CEB). The word all is so dreadfully all-encompassing; so shockingly all-inclusive. I think the reason that word all is so difficult is because we like our safe divisions. We find comfort in separation. We find safety in the wedges driven into the center of what should be our common life. Those wedges are nothing less than new nails piercing the body of our crucified Lord.

All includes people of other faiths. All includes people of other races and cultures. All includes people who are not citizens of our nation. When Paul says, we should work for the good of all he means we should work for the good of all. But the opposite of all is deeply embedded in our mentality. The opposite of all has produced some of the most appalling tragedies in human history.

Paul insists that there’s a better way, and that better way is the only way for those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. The better way is a religious faith that transcends boundaries. It’s a faith that is moved and motivated by compassion for all—even those who are “other” from us. It’s a faith that sees all people as beloved children of God. It’s a faith that seeks to exhibit God’s love by feeding all whom we encounter with the fruit of the Spirit that God produces in us.

What matters, Paul insists, is a new creation. “May peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel” (Galatians 6:16 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Fruit | Proper 8

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

1 Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.

13 You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. 14 All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. 15 But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other! 16 I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. 17 A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. 18 But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.

Fruit

Dr. Phil wrote a wonderful book.

No, not the Dr. Phil you see on TV.

I’m talking about Dr. Phil Kenneson. He wrote a wonderful book called Life on the Vine. In it, he examines the difficulties of living the Christian life faithfully in the midst of the dominant American culture which surrounds us. If you poll any number of people about being a Christian in the United States, you’d find differing opinions. The results would likely show that America is at the same time the best of places, and the worst of places to be a Christian.

On one side stand the seemingly self-evident advantages of religious freedom. We Americans can worship where we want, when we want, how we want, and with whom we want. Some Christians believe this freedom of religion is so important that they pledge unconditional loyalty to the system of government which has guaranteed this freedom and continues to secure. Furthermore, since other people and nations around the world have not been granted a similar freedom of worship, many Christians conclude that there can be no better place to be a Christian than in the United States.

On the other side of the question stand many Christians who have recognized that there is, in the words of Alanis Morissette, “A black fly in [our] chardonnay” (Ironic). While the Christians whom I know are equally grateful for the freedoms this nation gives us those who hold this view also recognize that there is much about its dominant culture that makes living a true and authentic Christian Faith exceedingly difficult. Phil Kenneson suggested that Christians in the American church are producing fruit, but he isn’t convinced that we’re producing the fruit of the Spirit.

Paul mentions the fruit of the Spirit as being love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But the fruits that our culture often tries to produce in us are the polar opposites of these fruits of the Spirit. The fruits of American culture include self-interest, greed, fragmentation, productivity, self-sufficiency, self-help, impermanence, aggression, and addiction. And this is not an exhaustive list. Our culture also values many of the things Paul lists in verses 19 through 21.

So, how do we cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our lives in the midst of a culture that is trying to cultivate very different kinds of fruit that are generally easier to grow? They’re easier simply because we’re exposed to them more than we are to the fruit of the Spirit. We live in the dominant culture every day, but we live in the midst of the church at best a few times a week; and often only for a few hours.

How do we cultivate love in a culture that breeds self-interest and encourages us to consider every aspect of our lives in terms of self-interest? Love is central to the Christian Faith. God is love. God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. Paul wrote, “All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14 CEB). I recall that someone else said those same words before Paul did (c.f. Matthew 22:39); and before that, God spoke those words to the people of Israel (c.f. Leviticus 19:18). Love is the opposite of self-interest.

What does love look like? We know that love is unmerited because we’ve received it from God even though we don’t deserve it. We receive God’s love all the time, because God’s love is steadfast. There is nothing we can do that can keep God from loving us. God’s love is for us is so powerful that it suffers for us. God is not distant but enters into the very fabric of our lives. God’s love is given to everyone, it knows no bounds. It transcends every human boundary that we build up in order to separate ourselves from other human beings, be they national, societal, economic, or even denominational. What does love, a fruit of the Spirit, have to do with self-interest?

How do we cultivate joy in the midst of a culture that breeds greed? We often use the same word, joy, for the state of experiencing joy, for the source of joy, and for our expressions of joy. In Greek, there are several words that can be translated into English as joy, but the word most often used is χαρά. (I had this word in mind when naming our daughter Kara. Her name means ‘joy’. Joy and Kara both have the same name, but in two different languages).

Joy is not mere pleasure, but a deep and abiding sense of contentment or satisfaction. Unlike pleasure, joy cannot be pursued for its own sake, but comes when we find that which we’ve been looking for. C.S. Lewis wrote the “very existence of joy presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer.” Joy is simply one of the consequences of being open to that which is beyond our own self. Joy looks outward.

Greed is the opposite of joy. Greed looks only inward and tries to possess, consume, and gather in all it can for the sake of selfish desire. One of the values of our culture is to seek our own pleasure above all else. Our culture even manufactures desire within us for things we really don’t need but are told we can’t live without. Greed is never happy, never content. But joy is always content. When we look outside of ourselves and see what God has done for us—and for the whole world—and how God continues to care for us, who can help but feel joy within our selves, with each other, and for each other? What does joy have to do with greed?

How do we cultivate peace in a culture that breeds fragmentation and sets people against each other? The people we work with, live by, play with, and go to church with aren’t often the same people. On top of that fragmentation and compartmentalized chaos, we have politicians telling us who we should fear and despise. These things stand in direct opposition to peace. Peace in the Scriptures is more akin to wholeness or even salvation, whereas we think of peace as the absence of war. The words of Isaiah align peace and salvation, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news of salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’.” What does peace have to do with fragmentation?

How do we cultivate patience in the midst of a culture that values productivity over the well-being of the person? Our culture has a peculiar absorption with the clock. Our days are judged by how much we get done and how well we did it in the allotted time period. Delays, whether expected or unexpected, tend to agitate us. But patience is the opposite of productivity. In English, the noun form of ‘patient’ developed out of the verb form of ‘patient’. In the Middle Ages, anyone who suffered patiently was considered a patient. Being a patient and exhibiting patience both require that a person yield control to another: instead of being an actor, we are acted upon. Patience has its root in God’s character. God does not have a hair-trigger temper but bears with us patiently. What does patience have to do with productivity?

I’m not going to get to cover kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in this sermon, because gone are the days when a preacher could talk for 3-hours and live to tell about it. Some of the less patient among us might start feeling a tad bit annoyed.

But I would encourage you to consider the differences between the other fruits of the Spirit and the fruits that our culture values: kindness versus self-sufficiency; goodness versus self-help; faithfulness versus impermanence; gentleness versus aggression; self-control versus addiction.

The fruit of the Spirit and the fruits that our culture is so good at cultivating in us are very different. But we have an advantage in our advocate: the Holy Spirit. As Paul said, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 CEB). It is the Spirit who cultivates the fruits of the Spirit in us. A tree is known by its fruit, and we have been called to bear much good and sweet fruit for the kingdom of God.

But, again, how do we do that?

The thing about the fruit of the Spirit is that it’s not some enigma or mystery that we can’t figure out. It’s how we act. It’s how we treat others. It’s what we display of our character for others to see in us. We are known by our fruit. But are we known for the fruit of the Spirit, or some other kind of fruit?

I like Thomas Merton’s writings. I think he was a very wise man who lived and was guided by the Spirit. He said, “If we are called by God to holiness of life, and if holiness is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is) then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. He will certainly give us the grace we need.” And this is my favorites part, “If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift” (Merton, Life and Holiness, p.17).

God has given us many, many gifts. These magnificent gifts include the Holy Spirit itself, as well as the many means of grace and sacraments. The fruits of this world, which are the desires of the self, will never lead to salvation. As Paul says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 CEB). Let us give attention to the kind of fruit we’re cultivating in our lives, and let’s aim for the good fruit of the Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Return and Tell | Proper 7

Luke 8:26-39

26 Jesus and his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a certain man met him. The man was from the city and was possessed by demons. For a long time, he had lived among the tombs, naked and homeless. 28 When he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 He said this because Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had taken possession of him, so he would be bound with leg irons and chains and placed under guard. But he would break his restraints, and the demon would force him into the wilderness.

30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had entered him. 31 They pleaded with him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs. Jesus gave them permission, 33 and the demons left the man and entered the pigs. The herd rushed down the cliff into the lake and drowned.

34 When those who tended the pigs saw what happened, they ran away and told the story in the city and in the countryside. 35 People came to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully dressed and completely sane. They were filled with awe. 36 Those people who had actually seen what had happened told them how the demon-possessed man had been delivered. 37 Then everyone gathered from the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and returned across the lake. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged to come along with Jesus as one of his disciples. Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you.” So he went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him. (CEB)

Return and Tell

In 2004, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church altered the membership vows by adding the word witness in two places. Since 2004, when a person is received into a United Methodist Congregation, they are asked the question: “As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?”

And, in order to include everyone in the church who became a member prior to the addition, the congregational response includes the statement: “we renew our covenant to faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness…”.

Our text describes this strange scene in which Jesus travels across the Sea of Galilee and lands on the Gentile side. This is the only account in Luke that has Jesus crossing the boundary into Gentile lands. So, it’s a significant event. In fact, it’s the longest single account of any event in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This crossing into Gentile territory foreshadows the witness of Christian people in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth, and the inclusion of the Gentile peoples in the early church (Acts 1:8; 10:1-11:18).

Strangely, people usually identify Cornelius the Centurion as the first Gentile convert to Christianity. But before we hear about Cornelius in Acts chapter 10, we hear about the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8, and this Gentile man from across the lake in Luke 8. Remember, Luke wrote Acts of the Apostles as Book 2 of his account of Jesus Christ and the early church. So, a long time before we hear about the Ethiopian Eunuch even longer before we hear about Cornelius, we have this Gentile man who begged to follow Jesus as one of his disciples.

This Gentile became the first person whom Jesus commissioned as a missionary on behalf of his own ministry. What’s more, the man’s ministry would reflect the ministry of Jesus, which was to preach and proclaim (Luke 4:18, 8:1).

There are some cool features of how Luke presents this event’s issues and resolutions. The possessed man had many demons, then the demons had gone from him. He was naked, then he was clothed. He lived homeless among the tombs, then he was told to return to his home. He fell down before Jesus and shouted at him, then he sat at Jesus’ feet and learned from him. The demon seized the man and he was beyond anyone’s ability to control, then the man was in his right mind.

All of these features show how he has been saved or healed. The same Greek word can be translated into English as saved or healed. And, in this instance, both meanings apply. This is a man who was suffering, and Jesus healed him of that suffering. He was lost and forsaken, and Jesus saved him.

This man’s encounter with Jesus begins with a question: “What have you to do with me?” It ends with another question: “May I follow you as your disciple?” The man begged to have something to do with Jesus.

The responses in the story, too, reveal a lot about the actors. The demons responded to Jesus with fear. The man, too, was afraid, and he begged Jesus not to torment him. After all, he was already being tormented. His life was misery, rejection, and loneliness.

So, Jesus responds to the man with compassion, mercy, and healing. Once the demons had left the man, he responded to Jesus with love and appreciation. He was seated at Jesus’ feet, dressed in clothes, and completely sane. The fact that he’s seated suggests that he’s listening to Jesus and learning from him as a disciple. Sitting at a teacher’s feet is the position of a student. It’s where Mary sat as she listened to Jesus teach her while her sister, Martha, was busy getting everything ready for their meal (Luke 10:39).

As the story of what happened spread throughout the region, people came to see what had happened, and they were filled with awe. The root word of awe in Greek is fear. Sometimes, that word is used to describe a holy respect—a holy response—to God. And, maybe the people felt this sense of the word to some degree. But, it’s also clear that they didn’t like whatever they felt. The people who had gathered asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome by fear.

But I don’t think that’s an unfamiliar response. Fear has a way of shackling us to the point that we prefer our demons we’ve normalized to the liberating power that’s unknown. Remember, when Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and the bondage they endured there, they complained and looked longingly toward the land where they had been stuck (Exodus 14:11-12; 16:3). It’s almost a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Fear can become our identity to the point that we don’t know who we are without it.

The movie Strictly Ballroom follows the story of a talented-yet-frustrated dancer named Scott whose flamboyant dance moves are denounced as not being “strictly ballroom” by the head of the Australian dance federation. Scott’s parents were dancers, too, but his father is a dejected person. It turns out that Scott’s father used to be a great dancer with his own unique moves, just like Scott, but he was stopped from dancing those new moves—stopped from being himself—by the conspiratorial actions of the same guy who would become the head of the dance federation.

No one had been allowed to dance “new moves” in years. Everything was to be “Strictly ballroom.” It’s when Scott’s father tells him, “We lived our lives in fear!” that Scott decides to break the shackles fear held over everyone in the dance federation by dancing his new moves despite the prohibition. He and his partner, Fran, wow everyone at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship with their Paso Doble, and everyone joins them on the floor to dance with them in newfound freedom.

The shackles of fear are not always easy to escape. We can be so accustomed to our fear that escaping it feels more terrifying than finding freedom. So, the people from the area asked Jesus to leave because they preferred the fearful power they knew to the unknown power Jesus displayed. What are our fears: the fears that only we know about which linger just below the surface of our mind, heart, or soul? I have at least one that I know, because it’s always here.

After Jesus freed the man from his demons, the man’s response was a desire to follow. He wanted to be a disciple of Jesus. He dedicated himself to Jesus. It’s a little surprising that Jesus denies the man’s request. After all, others have been included. Earlier in chapter 8, Luke wrote: “Soon afterward, Jesus traveled through the cities and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom. The Twelve were with him, along with some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses. Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out)” (Luke 8:1-2 CEB).

So, why would Jesus not include this man in his group of disciples? We can only surmise because the text doesn’t give a specific reason. One possibility is that the man was a Gentile, so he wouldn’t be welcome in the places Jesus his Jewish disciples would tread. If he had followed along with Jesus, he would have lived a life of exclusion because Jews didn’t associate with Gentiles. They didn’t eat together. They didn’t hang out together. They didn’t worship together. I doubt very much that Jesus would have wanted that for this man. So, Jesus sent him to where he would be welcomed. He sent the man to his home.

Another possibility is that, due to the same Jewish value of separation, a Gentile man’s presence with Jesus would probably have kept other Jews who needed to hear Jesus’ message away from Jesus. It might well have hindered Jesus’ mission to the people of Israel. Remember, the encounter between Peter and Cornelius as recorded in Acts 11 got Peter into trouble with the other Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-18).

Yet another possibility is that this Gentile man could accomplish far more in narrating God’s good news among his own people than Jesus could have. As I noted before, the mission to which Jesus tasks this man is a reflection of Jesus’ own mission, which is a quote from Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 CEB).

This man was a prisoner. He was oppressed. Yet, because of the compassion and mercy of Jesus, he was liberated and experienced freedom. This man had a witness to share, a story to tell, an experience of glory to narrate, but it was a story his own people needed to hear. So, Jesus responded to the man’s request to follow him by denying the request and, instead, giving him a mission: “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you” (Luke 8:39a CEB).

Instead of feeling dejected by the denial of his request, the man responded by doing exactly what Jesus told him to do. It’s interesting that Jesus told the man to tell the story of what God had done for him, but Luke tells us that the man “went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39b CEB).

Like the man, we all have a story to tell. We all have a witness to share. We all have an experience of glory to narrate. We may not have been rescued from a legion of demons, but we are witnesses of God’s rescuing love that is for all people, God’s overwhelming mercy that reaches across every divide, and God’s unfathomable grace which is offered freely to all who would receive it. Are we witnessing? Are we narrating our story? Are we telling others of what God has done for us?

The 2004 General Conference was right. We are witnesses. So, “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you” (Luke 8:39a CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay